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Football Team Forced to Remove Crosses Honoring Slain Teammate from Helmets

( [email protected] ) Sep 12, 2014 01:57 PM EDT

Arkansas State Football Helmet Cross Controversy
The crosses adorning Arkansas football team's helmets honored a teammate gunned down earlier this year (Courtesy Arkansas State)

An Arkansas football team was recently ordered to remove a Christian cross decal from the helmets after an attorney complained that such religious symbols violated the U.S. Constitution.

Football players at Arkansas State University voluntarily wore the cross decal to commemorate former player Markel Owens, who was shot in January, and equipment manager Barry Weyer, who was killed in a June car accident.

"The players knew they were both Christians so they decided to use the cross along with their initials," Barry Weyer, Sr. told "God Less America" author Todd Starnes.

"They wanted to carry the spirits of Markel and Barry Don onto the field for one more season."

The University's athletic director, Terry Mohajir, supported the decision.

"I support our students' expression of their faith," Mohajir said. "I am 100 percent behind our students and coaches."

However,University counsel Lucinda McDaniel forced the football players to remove the decals from their helmets or "modify" them after Jonesboro attorney Louis Nisenbaum sent an email to the school complaining about the religious imagery.

"That is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause as a state endorsement of the Christian religion," Nisenbaum wrote. "Please advise whether you agree and whether ASU will continue this practice."

McDaniel immediately wrote to Mohajir:

"If the bottom of the cross can be cut off so that the symbol is a plus sign (+) there should be no problem," she wrote. "It is the Christian symbol which has caused the legal objection."

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation praised the action, and suggested alternative ways for the players to commemorate their teammates.

"That is great news," said Rebecca Markert, an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"Putting religious imagery on public school property is unconstitutional."

"Many teams around the country honor former teammates by putting that player's number on their helmets or jerseys, or by wearing a black armband," the FFRF wrote. "Either of those options, or another symbolic gesture free from religion imagery, would be appropriate."

Both Mohajir and Weyer took great offense to such a suggestion, and argued that the FFRF's attacks violated the player's constitutional rights.

"I don't even kinda-sorta care about any organization that tells our students how to grieve," Mohajir said. "Everybody grieves differently. I don't think anybody has the right to tell our students how to memorialize their colleagues, their classmates or any loved ones they have."

"The fact is the cross was honoring two fallen teammates who just happened to be Christians," Weyer wrote on his Facebook page. "I just have a hard time understanding why we as Christians have to be tolerant of everybody else's rights, but give up ours."

Liberty Institute attorney Hiram Sasser may represent the football team in a lawsuit against the university.

"It is outrage that the university defacing the cross and reducing it to what the university calls a plus sign," he said. "It is disgusting."

"It is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination to force the players to remove or alter the cross on their helmets that they chose themselves simply because the cross is religious," he continued.

"The university and others want football players to be positive role models in the community, but as soon as the players promote a positive message honoring their former teammates - the university discriminates against them in a blatant violation of the Constitution."